Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Come and See": Homily for the Feast Day of St. Andrew the First-Called in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 4:9-16
John 1:35-51 
                 Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Andrew.  We remember him in the Church by the title   “the First-Called” because he has the unique privilege of being the first person Jesus Christ called to follow Him as a disciple and an apostle.  Think about that for a moment.  He is the first link in the chain, the very first living stone of the foundation upon which the Church stands to this very day.  Like his brother Simon who came to be known as Saint Peter, St. Andrew was a fisherman, a simple, hardworking man who left behind the life that he had known in order to follow the Lord in the ministry of the Kingdom for which he ultimately gave his life as a martyr.
                Today’s gospel text provides a very rich account of the calling of the first disciples.  Andrew was been a follower of St. John the Baptist who had clearly identified Christ by saying “Behold, the Lamb of God.”  Who knows what Andrew understood about Him at that moment, but the Forerunner’s words indicate that this Savior is the Passover Lamb Who will bring eternal life to a dark and dying world through His crucifixion and glorious resurrection.  In response to the question of where He was staying, the Lord replied “Come and see.”
Sight is a prominent theme in St. John’s gospel, which later gives us the account of the healing of the eyes of the man who had been blind from birth.  The ultimate point is not physical sight, of course, but spiritual vision.   To know Jesus Christ is not simply to accept abstract truths about Him, but to have the spiritually clarity to behold His glory and to participate personally in His life.  He called His first disciples truly to know Him from the depths of their souls, even as He invites and enables us to do today.
             St. Andrew’s immediate reaction to his visit with the Lord was to share the good news with his brother, saying “We have found the Messiah.”  From the very origins of our faith, there is a genuine evangelistic impulse to share with others the blessing and joy that we have found in Jesus Christ.  Just think how important it was that Andrew told his brother Peter about the Lord, for Peter went on to become the head disciple and the first bishop of both Antioch and Rome.  Likewise, to this day, we never know what God has in store for anyone in working out His purposes in the world.  Simon Peter was surely an unlikely character for such an exalted role, but the Scriptures and history of the Church show that God often uses precisely such seemingly ill-suited folks for His glory.   Yes, that includes you, me, and others whom we may find inconvenient, annoying, or unimportant.  God apparently sees us differently.
              The Lord then called St. Philip, who in turn shared the good news with St. Nathaniel, who asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth.  In other words, was this the right kind of Messiah who met the expectations of the Jewish people?  As we see in all the gospels, our Savior was neither a nationalistic military champion nor a religious legalist.  He was very different from what most people expected and wanted in that time and place.  Nonetheless, Nathaniel was so impressed that Christ saw him sitting under a fig tree that he exclaimed “You are the Son of God!  You are the king of Israel!”  It apparently was not very hard to impress Nathaniel.  But the Lord responded “You shall see greater things than these…you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
Notice the reference to sight yet again, for the Lord calls us to personal participation in and knowledge of God.  That is what it means to behold the glory of heaven.  Jesus Christ was not simply an especially gifted religious leader who knew surprising truths about people.  He was not merely a charismatic personality with a new teaching.  No, He is truly the Lamb of God Who fulfills the promises to Abraham in the Old Testament and extends them to all people who respond to Him with faith, love, and repentance.   He calls the entire world to be transfigured by His grace, to be illumined by His holiness, and even to become participants in the heavenly Kingdom.
It is amazing how much deep theology appears in these few verses about the calling of St. Andrew.  Perhaps that is because the same spiritual matters are at stake in every generation, in all times and places, when Christ calls human beings to follow Him.  Of course, His original disciples and apostles have an exalted and memorable role in the life of the Church.  No one would deny that.  But at the same time, the same Holy Spirit Who illuminated them on the day of Pentecost dwells in us and continues to bring us into the holiness of God.  Christ still calls us to follow Him.  He nourishes us with His own Body and Blood, making us personal participants in His salvation.  He is still the Lamb of God Who opens the eyes of human souls to heavenly glory beyond our expectations.   He calls and enables us to follow Him just as He did for the very first disciples.
Perhaps that is part of the reason that the Church tells the story of the coming of Christ every year during the Nativity Fast (Advent).  We return again and again to the young Virgin Mary entering the temple in preparation to become the Theotokos who gave birth to the incarnate Son of God.  We recount the unique roles of St. Joseph the Betrothed, the lowly shepherds, and the Gentile wise men in relation to His birth.  We remember the Hebrew prophets who foretold and prepared the way for Him, culminating with St. John the Baptist and Forerunner.  Even though we know the story quite well, the point is not simply to remind ourselves of historical details.  No, it is to invite us again and again to  “come and see,” to participate personally and fully in His healing of our corrupt, broken lives.  It is to “see the heavens opened, and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  It is to hear and respond to a life-changing call just as St. Andrew did as the very first disciple and apostle.
Unfortunately, familiarity often breeds contempt and it is so easy to think of this time of year as simply another round of parties, meals, shopping, travel, and family routines.  But we will miss the point entirely if we allow the unspeakable glory of the birth of the Savior to become just another instance of the same old thing, of life as usual.  We must not allow our habits and schedules to obscure the truth that He is infinitely holy.  Fortunately, the Church gives us the Nativity Fast each year as an opportunity to prepare to participate more fully in the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God for the salvation and fulfillment of every dimension of who we are in His image and likeness.  Each year, He calls us to “come and see” Him at least a bit more clearly, to know and follow Him at least a bit more faithfully.
Of course, these are infinite and eternal callings in which there will always be room for growth.  Even the great saints do not congratulate themselves on their holiness, but instead see their sins more clearly because their spiritual vision is so keen that they recognize more than the rest of us how far they are from being perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect.  When the goal is literally to behold, participate in, and manifest God’s eternal glory, which of us can claim to have mastered that?   Which of us can claim already to follow Him so faithfully that we do not need to fast, pray, give alms, and repent so that our spiritual eyes will be more clearly focused on the truth of Who Christ is and Who He calls  us to become? 
If, like St. Andrew, we want to play our unique role in the salvation of the world, we must embrace the spiritual disciplines of this season with faith, humility, and repentance.  In order to become credible living icons of His salvation, we must be healed and transformed in holiness as the unique people we are.  Andrew told his brother Simon Peter about Jesus Christ and Philip did the same with Nathaniel.   Who knows if just anyone could have done that?  And who knows today whether anyone else can fulfill the roles God intends for you and me in our particular circumstances?
 Regardless, we will not be able to follow Christ faithfully without opening the eyes of our souls to His divine glory.  No, we do not all have to become monks and nuns in order to do that.  We just have to take the small steps of which we are capable, being mindful and deliberate about prayer, fasting, generosity, repentance, and reconciliation. The same Lord Who called and enabled an unlikely group of fishermen to become great evangelists, disciples, and apostles wants to do something equally amazing with us.   During the season of preparation to celebrate His birth, the least we can do is to cooperate.       


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